In the High Himalayas, Sherpa Women Bear the Disproportionate Effects of Climate Change

Yet existing polices fail to recognize women as agents of change in responding to the climate crisis.

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At 39 years old, Dawa Sherpa has many roles to juggle. She’s an entrepreneur running a guest house for international and domestic trekkers making their way up Mount Everest in Namche, Nepal. While her husband owns a separate business in Kathmandu, their son and daughter are busy with their studies. Dawa is so preoccupied with managing the household that she barely has time to work in their small plot where she used to grow potatoes and other green vegetables. With the changing climate in the Himalayas, her problems continue to exacerbate. “While the mountains used to be snow-white 10 to 15 years ago, we now see increasing black spots in the mountains. In the last two years, potatoes were heavily destroyed due to the burial of mud in excessive snow”, said Sherpa.

In Nepal, women often manage agricultural labor, the household, and natural resources around the homestead. Climate change is making this work harder. Photo of Nepalese women carrying wood by Bikas Rauniar/Department for International Development.

A lot of publicly available climate research about the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region is carried out by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental knowledge and learning center based in Kathmandu, Nepal. The results are not encouraging: In 2019, they projected that the Himalayan mountains would warm an additional 0.3 to 0.7°C compared to the global average, even if we reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to preindustrial levels. The same year, a systematic review in their Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report found that going by a “business-as-usual” scenario, two-thirds of the HKH’s glaciers will be lost by 2100. A 2020 ICIMOD inventory report further stated that 21 glacial lakes in the Nepal Himalayas are at high risk. In the Khumbu region, there is growing evidence of a rapidly warming atmosphere and the resultant impact in the development of large lakes, the replacement of glacial ice by ponds, boulders, and sand, and the upward movement of the snowline. The impact of climate change, hence, is real.

Nonetheless, the impact is uneven along the lines of class, caste, gender, and ethnicity. Studies around how the inequitable distribution of assets, resources, and power; unequal access to land rights, technology, knowledge, and mobility; coupled with repressive cultural norms and rules that put women at a greater risk of the climate crisis have been well-documented. The story of women like Dawa Sherpa brings to the fore the growing impact of climate change and increasing livelihood challenges in the Himalayas and its disproportionate harm to women.

While the Sherpa tribe is well-known for their extraordinary physiology and daring (and often dangerous) mountaineering exploits, the migration of men for off-farm activities from Nepal and the Indian Himalayas has put additional pressure on women to manage agricultural labor, including other rural livelihood activities. In the Khumbu region, the mobility of male members has put a heavier burden on women who have to take care of dwellings and manage natural resources around the homestead.

Mingma Chamji Sherpa (not related to Dawa), a 12th-grade commerce student studying at Lukla, Khumbu, shares her observations and experiences of the impact of changing climate on the agro-pastoral tradition of Sherpa in general and on women in particular. The practice of animal husbandry, common in the past, has been abandoned today. “We used to have 20 oxen and two cows, but these days we have a single cow as we have no time to look after it. On the one hand, there is a shortage of human resources to manage household chores as the male members in almost every household in the region have left the village amid shifting business priorities. On the other hand, unfavorable weather patterns and unprecedented disasters like landslides have resulted in declining interest in the pastoral tradition although such practice is highly valued in Sherpa culture as it brings prosperity to the family and community,” said Sherpa.

Despite the rich knowledge that women possess owing to their lived experiences and roles as cooks, caregivers, and water and firewood collectors that put them in a position to contribute towards climate adaptation and the development of a green and resilient economy, existing policy provisions don’t recognize women as contributors and agents of change in responding to the climate crisis. For instance, the Nepal Climate Change Policy published in 2019 embraces the need to integrate Gender and Social Inclusion (GESI) into climate adaptation and mitigation but considers women only as passive beneficiaries. Dr. Pasang Dolma Sherpa is the Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Research and Development (CIPRED) and a Co-chair of the Facilitative Working Group (FWG) of Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She said, “Women are at the center of climate impacts: as educators in the communities, as nurturers providers, and as first responders. But existing policies, on the one hand, don’t have an intersectional approach, and on the other, posits women only as vulnerable and marginalized groups”.

The lead authors of the 2019 ICIMOD HKH Assessment Report “In the Shadows of the Himalayan Mountains: Persistent Gender and Social Exclusion in Development” chapter concur with Dr. Sherpa’s Characterization:

“The attempts to ‘gender mainstream’ in climate policies, strategies, and interventions remain plagued by simplistic, apolitical interpretations of gender: ‘gender as women’, the paradoxical positioning of homogenous categories of ‘mountain women’ as being both ‘vulnerable victims’ of climate change as well as ‘formidable champions’ of climate adaptation, and the idea that engaging women on projects is taking care of women’s needs and empowering women…

The largest reason for concern is that gender mainstreaming appears to have been achieved in environmental governance by adopting a very narrow and simplified concept of ‘gender.’ The term is essentially used as a synonym for ‘poor rural women’.”

International policy provisions have finally accorded priority to mainstreaming gender agendas in climate action: As of July 2021, 94 percent of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by developing countries towards the Paris Agreement have recognized gender inequality as a climate-related risk. However, there remains a lot of work to do to take concrete implementation steps and quantify the potential impact of such measures in improving the capabilities and resilience of women.

Realizing the need to address the growing gender-differentiated impacts of climate change, two years ago, COP26 in Glasgow approved a decision text calling for the parties to “strengthen their implementation” of the already-agreed-upon Gender Action Plan (GAP) into practice. The text further invites countries to furnish reports on the disproportionate gendered impact and underscores the need for an improved support mechanism for women to build resilience as part of climate action. Last year’s COP27 in Egypt referenced the technical paper “Just transition: An essential pathway to achieving gender equality and social justice” prepared by the International Labour Organization during the intermediate review of the implementation of the GAP.

Effective climate action demands a well-thought plan and strategies to promote synergies between gender equality, women’s empowerment, and climate goals. Identifying the needs and priorities of women and adopting gender-responsive data and information in generating climate solutions will be the key to integrating gender dynamics in climate change.

But now, women in the Nepal high Himalayas and below wait with bated breath to see how these plans, if and when put into action, help them help themselves fight against climate change.

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